Strategy for understanding 'Cobra'
* By CHRIS WYROD
"The collaborative environment that I use for
my work is areal American tradition that's ignored
because the European aesthetic, the big Romantic
myth, is sooriented toward ivory-towercomposers
- the Beethovens, the Mahlers. It's bullshit; all
those guys had collaborators."
So say John Zorn, whose recent proliferation
of revved-up movie scores and Naked City's post-
modern pie fights has made him the local hero
wherever irreverence flourishes. Attitude aside,
Zorn has always embraced diversity and respected
individuality in music. Be it Mauricio Kagel's
organic composition style, James Blood Ulmer's
staccato free-blues or Hazel Adkin's cardboard
recordings of primal rockabilly, Zorn taps into the
Yet some of Zorn's records almost disintegrate
through the friction of juxtaposition. "Genryu
Island" (Yukon Records) combines John's new
language of alto sax flutters and squeals with
Japanese musician Michihiro Sato's shamisen
snaps; "Spillane" (Nonesuch) brings blues guitarist
Albert King into Zorn's steamy underworld.
Through his game pieces, Zorn turned to a new
form of composition. With his serial box
composition style and a prompter who loosely
conducts the ensemble, Zorn deskills the composer
while evoking musical situations that tax the
performers improvisatory skills.
Nothing is notated, yet the music is far from
free. Innumerable rules, cards and hand-signals
channel the extemporaneous flow. So while the
rules of the game are Zorn's brain child, each
realization of a game piece like Cobra is a
While Pool was Zorn's first piece with a
Alternative NRG view migh
Hollywood Records useful d
Likely the concept of some eco- environ m
exec, the Greenpeace disc propagan
"Alternative NRG" is a compilation cardboard
of tracks recorded and mixed using a Either
solar collector named Cyrus, built of the diff
especially for this project. Of the 16 all of alte
tracks, 14 were recorded live, with everything
only the Soundgarden / Brian May hittersR.E
and Midnight Oil songs finding their sounding
origins in studios. An interesting ploy James. A t
considering live tracks are almost Unfortuna
always noticeably inferior to their well as an
studio counterparts. However, as to the pa
simple compilations of previously opening t
available material have very little sounds far
attraction for most people, the live general to
prompter, it was not until Cobra that Zorn began
genre-hopping instead of emitting No Wave bleeps.
Zorn's urban-bred aesthetic of break-neck speeds
and dizzying jump-cuts between genres finds its
perfect medium in Cobra (inspired by an Avalon
Hill war game). A Cobra performance may cut
from a fractured polka to a dense fog of noise and
samples, or from lounge jazz to speed thrash
Anthony Coleman, keyboardist of the 12-
Attitude aside, Zorn has
always embraced diversity and
respected individuality in
member Cobra ensemble and organizer of the
monthly performances at New York's Knitting
Factory, has been playing Cobra since its inception
in 1984. At some ridiculously early hour, he
discussed Cobra's basic structure.
"Cobra is a game piece. It was the first game
piece that began to talk about genres, which got
very important when John got to Godard (Nato)
and Spillane, where you were told specific genres
of each section. They are like aural snapshots. But
by Cobra, he still wasn't controlling the musical
material that much, but there were certain things
that were beginning to come in."
These "certain things" make up the open
architecture of Cobra. They include a stack of cue
cards that would rival any doctoral candidate's
number of index cards. Coleman explained one of
Cobra's many systems: "Ear systems have to do
with very clearly audible changes. The kind of
music being played continues, but the group of
musicians playing it changes. On the down beat
you get a kind of impression of what the last group
was playing by another group musicians."
Memory systems help give continuity and
reflexivity to each Cobra performance. "You can
log through sounds that you like and, when called,
they can come back, so they create a rondo-form,"
Coleman explained. "An evening of Cobra is
made up of several performances of the piece
Cobra. So at the end of each piece, you get rid of
those memories and you start with new ones."
One of the most intriguing systems is the
guerrilla system, which puts a new spin on the
game by allowing three players (wearing green
headbands) to dominate the performance. The
guerrillas "tell people who can play, who can't
play, organizes which kind of events happen and
so on, rather than having all 12 people make the
decisions," Coleman said. But the guerrilla unit
can be killed if one of the trio becomes a spy or
dissents from the guerrilla group.
So Cobra isn't just about music. It's about
politics, kinetics, cooperation and appropriation.
The structure is amorphous, framing each
performer's highly personalized style in genre
Cobra isn't a spotlight for someone who's
already been deemed "the most important
composer of a new generation of musicians"; it's
about a collaboration of like-minded performers
whose composite is much more than a sum of
COBRA will strike the Michigan Theater
tonight at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 at the
Michigan Theater and Schoolkid's records.
and charms Cobra tonight at the Michigan Theater.
se bootleg. A less positive
ht be that it is a loathsomely
emonstrative tool for
nentalist scum, as the
da on the ironically large
way, the disc covers many
ferent aspects of the catch-
rnative music. It contains
g from mainstream heavy
.M. and U2 to such different
acts as Yothu Yindi and
the very least, it is eclectic.
ately, it can't be used very
introduction for the listener
articipating groups. The
track, R.E.M. 's "Drive",
from ideal live and sets the
ne for the album. There are
comp might be seen as some sort of
Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E. tracks
demonstrate. And the studio tracks
are naturally freed from the pitfalls
native to live tracks. It is a shame
these fine songs are not the
representative of the album.
There should be three reasons that
might lead you to buy this disc. One:
you may be a hard-core, completist
fan of one of the bands on it. Two: you
may like several of the bands on it and
so you can have several different
tracks you would otherwise be
lacking. Three: you may be a hopeless
green-head and need to buy it to stay
on good terms with your
Birkenstocked friends. If you meet
one or more of these criteria, feel safe
in buying this compilation.
- Ted Watts
Sire / Reprise
With its spare acoustic guitars,
twanging distorted electrics and high-
lonesome vocals, "Anodyne," Uncle
Tupelo's major-label debut, appears
to sound like everything you've heard
before, but that's part of the point.
Uncle Tupelo is based upon musical
tradition and their music doesn't
deviate in the slightest from the
pioneering country-rock of Gram
Parsons and Neil Young or the
traditional country of Hank Williams,
George Jones, Merle Haggard and
Like the best country music, the
thing that makes "Anodyne" special
is its context. Although the music
See RECORDS, Page 8
Life After God
"Your 20s are horrible," Douglas
Coupland told the audience at his
book reading at Borders, "but it gets
better after that. Of course, there are
other things that fill the vacuum."
Coupland, who inadvertently
damned everyone in their 20s with
the label "Generation X" a few years
ago (the title of his first book), makes
a case for his pessimism in his latest
book "Life After God," a collection
of short stories and simple illustrations
about life after growing up. The stories
started as small books he gave away
to friends, but ended up as an odd-
sized collection. While he's not at
fault for making us the slacker-
postmodern angst generation the rest
of the mass media has labeled us, he
does capture the moods and feelings
of the recently turned
twentysomethings quite accurately
The characters are simple but
lively. Divorced parents, an olderfilm
student brother who never left home,
an HIV-positive yuppie and a dying
dog named Walter are all familiar, but
Surrounding them are drug dealers, a
desert drifter, Patty Hearst and an
array of dissatisfied lovers who float
in and out of the protagonist's life.
What they all share is a loss of faith
and an unexpected isolation.
"The whole ensemble had made a
suitably glamorous backdrop for my
belief that my poverty, my fear of
death, my sexual frustration and my
carry me off into some sort of
Epiphany. I had lots of love to give -
it's just that no one was taking it
then," Coupland writes in the second
vignette "My Hotel Year," capturing
a mood for all of his characters.
The connection of these stories
are the simple illustrations above
every two or three pages. Coupland's
renderings are no more complex or
detailed as Kurt Vonnegut's were in
"Breakfast of Champions," but they
put a personal stamp on each scene. In
"Patty Hearst" the narrator talks about
his sister who left five years ago.
When he attempts to relocate her at a
convenience store, it is raining;above
the section is a simple rendition of
rain filling puddles. A scribbling of a
Campbell's chicken noodle soup can
evokes an innocence in the narrator
when his sister describes Patty
Hearst's abduction over a lunch of
soup. Each picture sets a mood for the
following two or three pages.
Although the stories are preceded
by quotes like "For anyone who's
ever broken up with someone else" or
"You are the first generation raised
without religion" (not to mention the
cheery title), there is a dark humor in
the book, stemming from the accuracy
Coupland gets with our generation.
In "1000 Years (Life After God)"
Julie, a free-spirited youth-turned.
suburban mother of two, comments,
"I'm trying to escape from ironic hell:
cynicism into faith; randomness into
clarity; worry into devotion. But it's
hard because I try to be sincere about
life and then I turn on a TV and I see
a game show host and I have to throw
up my hands and give up ... Clarity
would be so much easier if there
weren't so many cheesy celebrities
around." She also nicknames her
rambunctious children "Damien" and
"Satan" behind their backs.
It's not a complex book, but it
creates its own voice of a generation
without being pretentious or coming
off like a John Hughes movie from
the '80s. And best of all, if you can't
afford to fork over $17 (our generation
is poorer than our parents) there are
30-second adaptations of six of the
stories currently running on MTV.
- Kirk Miller
iversity of W isconsin-Platteville
u have built castles in the air,
vork need not be lost.
swhere they should be.
ut the fodationds under them."
-Henry David Thoreau
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